No gaffes, no breakthroughs

October 12, 1992

Bill Clinton said at the beginning of the presidential debate last night that he represents "real hope for change," and he concluded an hour and half later by saying that this election is a contest between "change or more of the same."

We would say that "change" about sums up this election campaign. President Bush said more than once last night that he was for change, too, and tried to dramatize his intention to bring it about in a second term by promising to put his top aide, former Secretary of State James Baker, in charge of the domestic agenda, with instructions to do "do what you've done in foreign affairs." And, of course, H. Ross Perot is for change more drastic than anything either the governor or the president supports, including, as he made clear without mincing words, new taxes.

All three candidates probably reinforced their supporters' faith in them. None made a gaffe of the sort that wounds candidacies - and none made the big dramatic breakthrough that rocket-boosts lift-off to victory.

If we had to chose a winner, that is, the one most likely to have attracted a significant number of undecided voters to start moving his way, we would says it was Governor Clinton. He displayed at least as good a grasp of the details involved in the disagreements over policies and programs as President Bush. He was a good advocate for the new programs he has been urging the nation to adopt. He dealt with the criticism directed at his character, judgment and, perhaps, patriotism, directly and effectively. He came across as presidential, which is the first requirement of a challenger to an incumbent.

Mr. Perot did well. He displayed at their best his own attractive personality and no-nonsense approach to the national malaise. But he was curiously one-dimensional at times, more like a critic than a candidate truly expecting that he might actually get the opportunity to be president.

President Bush was more attractive than he has been in many recent appearances. He, too, looked presidential. But he also looked tired. Almost spent. His argument that "experience" is an important attribute in a president, and that Mr. Clinton has little of it in foreign affairs, was not made with the forcefulness we would have expected from the president who presided over the end of the Cold War. His defense of his administration's few rays of economic sunshine - low interest rates, low inflation, increased exports - was also unspirited.

An incumbent promising change is less persuasive than a challenger, but it was made clear last night that whoever wins this election, change will be the watchword of the next administration.

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